Gender Studies

Women in Islam: The Western Experience

Anne Sofie Roald, London & New York: Routledge, 2001. 339 pages.

Anne Sofie Roald, a Norwegian convert to Islam and associate professor of the history of religion at Malmo University (Sweden), devotes her book to two major themes: Examining what the interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah in the Arab cultural sphere “say” on various women’s issues, and how this interpretation tends to change during the cultural encounter with the West. The cover picture exemplifies these themes: two young happy Muslim women wearing headscarves while biking, illustrating Muslim women well integrated into western society but without giving up their Islamic identity. The book is divided into two parts: theoretical and methodological reflections, and empirical issues.

Roald’s approach involves exact textual citation. Her emphasis on text is explained, as Islam is a scriptural religion, as “what can be termed Islamic is what can be linked to the text.” Further, she analyses how classical and contemporary scholars have interpreted the text, in addition to the results of her fieldwork among Arab Sunni Muslim activists living in the West. This methodology allows her to avoid the reification of Islam – the apprehension of Islam as separated from its social context. She chooses to emphasize the opinions of the Muslim Brotherhood (ikhwan) and the postikhwan trend, or an “independent Islamist trend” of Islamists who go beyond the ikhwan’s thought and who are not linked to its organization. Being an Arabic-speaking Muslim herself, Roald plays both roles of being an “insider” and an “outsider.”

Her analysis builds basically on two theories: the “basket metaphor” combined with the idea of “normative fields.” The “basket,” defined as the set-up of traditions in a specific religion or ideology, is a metaphor that comes from the idea that a basket leaks from the inside and absorbs from the outside. In other words, concepts might leak out and new ones might get absorbed. Further, even though all of its contents are latently present, what is needed in different times and spaces is subjected to the processes of selection. Roald explains that Muslims might consider such a metaphor blasphemous, but the selection from “the basket” is what actually happens. The text’s function, how it is being interpreted and applied, is superior to the text’s very existence.

The “normative field” in which the scriptures are interpreted is the tension between two poles: the “Arab cultural base pattern” with patriarchal gender structures, and the “western cultural base pattern” associated with gender equality structures. These categories are used as typologies in a Weberian sense. As the analysis of the empirical material depends heavily on these categories, perhaps an elaboration on the two poles is necessary to avoid the critique of cultural essentialism. Although gender equality is the West’s prevailing norm due to its particular history, gender equality is not in any essential sense western. Furthermore, as Roald emphasizes, norms differ from practice and the actual behavior in the West toward women is not necessarily characterized by gender equality. It also should be stressed that her investigation of the Islam–West encounter situates the West as the powerful majority society versus “Islam,” represented by an immigrant minority in Europe.

For an outsider, Roald’s study might give the impression of dealing with textual trifles. But as an insider, she is aware of the utmost importance that these wordings have for Muslim women’s daily practice in terms of gender relations. If change is to come, it is bound to start with a new understanding of the texts. Roald gives a short but insightful introduction to the Shari‘ah. Of particular interest is her elaboration on ‘urf (custom) as “these regional customs compatible with Islamic principles became part of legislation.” Another form of the same root (ma’ruf) is mentioned 38 times in the Qur’an to denote what is “good” and “accepted.” Roald discusses what happens if the notion of what is “accepted” changes over time and space, suggesting a possibility for more flexible legislation within the Shari‘ah.

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